Blood on the tablecloth

Detail of a set table, showing a a plate, cutlery and glasses.

'Supper table' (detail) in Mrs Isabella Beeton, Beeton's every-day cookery and housekeeping book, Ward, Lock & Co., London, [ca.1895]. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Servant ‘butchers’ dinner guest!

In putting on the dishes and taking them off, I shall observe to you a few things, as many accidents have occurred through inattention and want of care. Thomas Cosnett, The Footman’s Directory, and Remembrancer; or, The Advice of Oneimus to His Young Friends. (London, 1835)

Forget the tumbling plate of lobster tails landing on the Dowager’s lap (for those of us who spend most of our time ‘downstairs’ this happened to Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey) – an equally dramatic incident occurred much closer to home, in the dining room of Elizabeth Bay House, in July, 1890!

A ‘disagreeable little adventure’

Miss Rose Browne relates her story in a letter to her friend, Bessie Rouse of Rouse Hill House (the colonial families were all socially interconnected), who she’d evidently been staying with just prior to her time under Sir William John Macleay’s roof at Elizabeth Bay.

At dinner that night I had rather a disagreeable little adventure [.] the parlour maid who helps the man wait [at the table] was taking a knife away from beside my plate and as she did so, contrived to gash the side of my hand, which bled profusely and I had to leave the table and get the maid to tie it up – too bad that poor ‘Angora’ should be butchered the first night of her departure from Rouse Hill!!!

The poor girl looked scared to death when she saw what she’d done and made the humblest apologies to me afterwards – Her mistress gave her a look calculated to strike terror into the stoutest heart!!!

According to her letter, Rose’s time in Sydney was a heady whirl of social calls, dinners, concerts, and charity events, including the Queen’s Fund Ball – for which she wore a skirt done up ‘in the most fetching manner… beading stuff in front and a big moire sash on the back over the tulle waterfall’ and ornamented herself with ‘pale pink roses and jessamine and maidenhair’.

No ball for this Cinderella…

But what of the servant girl? We do not know the repercussions, if any, and with luck Susan Macleay’s glare was punishment enough. We do know that staff were difficult to find, good domestic help even harder!

Illustration of immigrant women being hired at Hyde Park.

‘Hiring Immigrants at the Depot, Hyde Park’ (detail), Australian Town and Country Journal, 19 July 1879, p24. State Library of New South Wales: TN83A

‘Fust pick’

It had long been a ‘provider’s’ market – householders queued for hours for first pick of the female immigrants who came seeking a new life in the colony. For a long time this took place at Hyde Park Barracks, which between 1848 – 1886 was an immigration depot with employment services for women seeking work as ‘domestics’. It’s possible this parlour-maid-come-waitress started her working life in Sydney this way. Advertisements for hiring days were placed in the Sydney Morning Herald and were quite competitive affairs –

There had assembled outside the door about 200 ladies in want of servants, and when 12 o’clock came round the rush made by the fair employers for ‘fust pick’ was so eager…

Many of the ‘domestics’ were unskilled and had little experience in the duties expected of them in a well-to-do household – waiting on a table for the upper-crust could be a daunting prospect, and seemingly the Macleay’s ‘parlour maid’ was learning the hard way, on this particular evening.


Cosnett, Thomas. The Footman’s Directory, and Remembrancer; or, The Advice of Oneimus to His Young Friends. First published 1825.